Working Writer Tip: The Worst Book You Ever Read

It’s been the week from hell. Two ER visits complete with follow-up doctor visits, medication, etc, the car needed semi-major repairs, we purchased a dehumidifier because the air conditioners aren’t keeping up, and the list goes on… and on.

Which got me to thinking about other less than wonderful situations. One that must be included in any such list is putting out a hefty sum for a book with a great blurb and cover art and finding out that it’s the worst book ever published and is good only for throwing against the wall in a fit of pique or propping up a table leg.

Except maybe that book shouldn’t be included after all. Because there is one very special use for the worst book ever published. It can become a morale booster for all of us writers who struggle to be published in what can be a difficult world.

Because if that book got published, then by golly ours can too!

Let me illustrate. I have two daughters. They were still living at home when I first started writing and they became my best and most brutal critics. Then they grew up and moved away.

A few years later, as a veteran fiction writer, I was asked by an aspiring author to critique a story she’d written. I agreed. I read the story and it was pretty bad. Not as bad as the worst book I’d ever purchased, but bad. My youngest daughter happened to be visiting at the time and, since she was an experienced critic, I asked her opinion. She read the story and agreed with me. It was bad.

I didn’t want to hurt the writer’s feelings but I had to tell her something. So I asked my daughter if she had any advice. She looked me up and down in that way she has. “Tell her whatever you want. What’s the big deal? You wrote a lot of really bad stuff and it got published. Maybe hers will too.”

I’ll remember those words for the rest of my life.

The moral of this story is: put that worst book ever published near your writing space where you can see it easily. Look at it occasionally and smile. It’ll inspire you because you’ll know you’re a better writer than the author of that horrific book. Then write what you want. Maybe it’ll be great literature, maybe not. Either way, it just might end up being published.

Working Writer Tip: Tagging Plus

Last week’s post got me thinking about other tips for writers.

I wish I could give you the name of the author or the book that changed the way I wrote but it was so long ago that I can’t recall either. What I do remember is that I was reading an interesting book and, as usual, I didn’t have enough time to do it justice. Housework, kids, students’ homework and so on. So I decided to do what I often did when I was in a hurry and unwilling to stop reading. Forget the descriptions and zero in on the dialogue because that’s what moves the story along. You know how it works. You skip the long paragraphs that are most likely descriptions and zero in on the short, choppy partial lines that indicate dialogue.

I could not read that particular book that way because there were no long paragraphs and few short, choppy sentences. So I read the whole book. Every word. Then I read it again to find out how he wrote a story that couldn’t be skimmed through.

It was soon apparent. He used dialogue tags, those things most writers use as a way of avoiding using the word ‘said.’ But he used them in a way that changed how the story was written. And read.

He used dialogue tags to integrate into dialogue those descriptive passages that would normally be separate paragraphs and he did it so well that they could not be separated.

That made me sit up and take notice. I mainly write short stories and am always on the lookout for ways to squeeze more information into fewer sentences without distracting from the scene. Well….. I’d just read a book that did it wonderfully well and as soon as I figured out what he did, I started doing the same thing.

Consider the following three ways to say the same thing:

First, just using the word ‘said’:
She said, “You’d better put the horses in the barn. It looks like rain.”
He said, “I already did, and in their stalls.”
She said, “Good, they’ll feel safe.”

Second, using dialogue tags as they are often used:
She gazed at the sky. “You’d better put the horses in the barn. It looks like rain.”
He nodded briefly. “I already did, and in their stalls.”
She sighed in relief. “Good, they’ll feel safe.”

Third, using dialogue tags to move the story along, not just to tag the speaker:
She gazed at the sky, grimacing as a thunderbolt rent air thick with the storm that had been building for days. Weeks. Since they’d moved in. “You’d better put the horses in the barn. It looks like rain.” She rubbed her hands along her jeans.
He grinned, cocky, wrapping an arm around her waist until she unconsciously leaned into him and moved her hands from her jeans to his chest. “I already did, and in their stalls.”
A second, more horrific clap of thunder brought them closer until they were one body, one person. “Good, now they’ll feel safe.”

The third way seems longer, but remember that whole paragraphs of description have been eliminated by integrating the content of those paragraphs into a few dialogue tags and the resulting reading is not cumbersome.

Not all writers choose this way of putting a story together. Not all writers should choose it because writing is a very personal art. But for those of us who do, especially short story writers or any writer trying to reduce the number of words in a manuscript, it can put the whole range of storytelling tactics together into one manageable chunk. And that’s gold in the writer’s world.

Working Writer Tip: The Rule of Three

When I started writing for a living, I knew next to nothing. Okay, I’ll be honest. I knew nothing at all. But I learned. I read and attended workshops and took classes. In each of those places, I learned something. Being a former teacher, I of course, have always wanted to pass on some of those tips to writers who don’t know as much as I do about writing and to hopefully make their learning curve less steep.

Recently I read a book by a new, talented author I know. Less than five pages into the book, I found myself flipping back to the paragraph where a character had been introduced in order to refresh my mind as to which character I was reading about at the moment. And I was soon confused in spite of my page flipping. The author did a good job of describing the characters, but there were just too many to keep them all straight in my mind, especially that early in the story.

As I read, I wondered if the author should have used the Rule of Three. And then I wondered if the author had even heard of the Rule of Three. And as soon as that thought came to me, I knew what I wanted to post about this week. The Rule of Three.

It goes like this: Just like few jugglers can handle more than three balls without dropping at least one, few readers can mentally juggle a huge cast of characters without becoming confused in the process and few authors are gifted enough to write a scene containing a huge cast of characters in a way that the average reader can remember which is which. Most either end up skipping that scene or, worse, putting the book aside.

But some scenes require a huge cast of characters. So what to do? Why, invoke the Rule of Three, of course. Group that huge cast of characters into no more than three groups. Think there’s no way to put dissimilar characters into one group? Think harder and figure out a way!

Hero might be one group of just one person because Hero is important (of course, the book is about him).

The second group might consist of his friends. Even though they are individuals in their own right, in this scene there are simply too many of them to describe as separate individuals. Instead, describe each friend as a member of a group. Preferably, don’t even name which character is performing a particular action, just let the reader know it’s a friend. The specifics can be straightened out in a later scene involving fewer characters. Like when the fight scene is being relived later. Then each character’s actions can be given due attention.

The third group could consist of all of the hero’s enemies. Sure, they are different individuals and come to the fray with different agendas and weapons and backgrounds. But for this scene they are all villains and that’s all the reader needs to know. Again, if it’s essential to know which villain did which dasterdly deed, it can all be explained later.

And that’s the Rule of Three. Simple isn’t it? It makes following stories easier for the reader which, after all, is the whole point. And that’s my post… and my hint… for today.